Christmas time, different and the same every time

December 31st, 2021


(as published in The Daily Memphian, December 24, 2021)

(photo: Father and son on steps at Oxford, 1969)

Merry Christmas to Memphis and to Memphians wherever they are.

Tonight, my family will celebrate Christmas around our dining room table. For the past four decades plus, that celebration included the Lupfer family, our next-door neighbors when that tradition started in the late 1970s. After dinner, we would open presents from the two families, saving our family presents for Christmas morning.

Tonight, things will be different.

Mike Lupfer died a few years ago, and his wife Shirley died a few months ago. Their son Eric and his wife Victoria will not be making the trip from Austin, instead spending the holiday with Vic’s family in Texas.

Tonight, things will be the same.

Children will still laugh, spill things, chase each other, knock over things, frighten dogs, rip things open, refuse to sit at the table, and wonder if there are more things to rip open. Adults will still tell some of the same stories, still make some of the same dishes, still savor and groan at the stories and dishes, still lifting glasses.

But these are the children and niece and nephews of the children become adults. And some of these stories will be new. And some of the glasses will be lifted to empty chairs.

Shirley almost always brought a pork crown roast, a glorious standing testament to the occasion, looking more the stuff of a royal banquet in some torch-lit castle than the fare for humble villagers. And that year’s story of where the roast was procured and the conversation with the butcher were always shared.

Tonight, Shirley won’t be there, but of course she will, and the story of her roast adventures will be told. Mike won’t be there to take the pictures as he always did of all the festivities, but of course he will, and those pictures are indelible.

Different and the same. Shared.

In many ways, Memphis is more of a town than a city, a big town maybe, but with a lot of small town in it. It has great big tangly roots, though, that tie you to the place, a great big voice heard around the world, and a great big reach into the world’s and heart’s distant corners.

I tell stories about that when I hear them, and I tell them a lot when I’ve lived them.

This is my Christmas story. Felt and told again this year.

Every Christmas I tell it again, and in the telling Christmas comes home. In the telling people and places and a lifetime flash by and visit, if only for a moment, and moments are remembered.

It was my first time to England and overseas, and prime time for The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Soho.

It was time to discover pubs, and Scottish eggs, bubble & squeak and spotted dick. Time to discover that bitter, served warm, is twice as strong as our brew, that a British pint holds 20 oz. instead of our 16, and all of that explains why your knees don’t work after three of them.

It was time to learn about language barriers, say, American vs. English. Ask to see some pants, as I did at Harrods, and a prig in a morning suit will show you a table full of underwear. “Oh, you must mean trousers,” he sardonically oozed.

It was time to learn about time. Walking by six churches 300 years old to visit one 900 years old.

Visiting Shakespeare at Stratford and Henry at Hampton. Standing on stone steps at Oxford with Dad, and putting our feet where so many have gone before that they weren’t so much steps anymore but troughs, worn down by their witness to centuries.

It was Christmas time.

It was the last Christmas all three sons would share with our parents, although none of us knew that at the time, and the last Christmas I would be single, and I guarantee neither Nora nor I knew that at the time. Both brothers were living in greater London, Jim in Kensington and Frank in Barnes, a town on the Thames not far from the city.

It was time to come home.

In Barnes, I was introduced to a tiny, ancient pub not even on a road, accessible only by footpath between houses. Throwing darts, it was my turn to buy. After working my way to the crowded bar and leaning in to order my pints, I heard someone say, “Danny?”

In a small town outside of London, in a pub known only to locals, I found myself standing next to someone I was in the third grade with at Memphis State Training School and hadn’t seen since he’d moved away in the middle of that school year.

A lifetime ago, across oceans and centuries, my family and I shared a Christmas I will never forget. Tied to a larger world. Still tied to each other. Still tied to home.

Whatever your faith, whether you believe this is a time of anticipation and arrival, or of reflection or celebration, or of renewal or recognition – or all of those – I believe it’s a time to look inside to places only you can visit, to look at the paths traveled and at those who’ve shared the journey then and now, and to know, truly know, you are not alone.

There, at Christmas time, I can find love. And peace. And hope.

I’m a Memphian, and I wish for you and yours all that you wish for yourselves this Christmas and in the coming year.


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